Double dissolution

A double dissolution occurs when both the Senate and the House of Representatives are dissolved—shut down—in order for a federal election to take place. This fact sheet explores how double dissolutions are used in the Australian Parliament and explains joint sittings.

A double dissolution election is different to a regular federal election, when only half the Senate seats are contested. In a double dissolution, the Governor-General dissolves both the Senate and the House of Representatives at the same time, meaning every seat in both chambers is contested. This is the only time all senators stand for election at the same time.

A double dissolution can only happen when there is a deadlock between the two houses of Parliament. It usually occurs at the request of the Prime Minister.

Purpose

The Australian Constitution gives almost identical powers to the Senate and the House of Representatives. A bill—proposed law—must be agreed to by both houses in order to become law. The drafters of the Constitution saw the possibility of a deadlock occurring between the 2 houses over a bill. Section 57 of the Constitution provides a way to resolve the disagreement, by dissolving both houses of Parliament and calling an election to let the voters decide what the outcome will be. This only applies to a bill that starts in the House of Representatives.

Procedure

Section 57 of the Australian Constitution details the conditions—called triggers—for a double dissolution:

  1. The House of Representatives passes a bill and sends it to the Senate.
  2. The Senate rejects or fails to pass the bill, or passes it with amendments—changes—to which the House will not agree.
  3. Three months pass from the time the Senate disagrees with the bill.
  4. The House of Representatives passes the same bill and sends it to the Senate again.
  5. The Senate again rejects or fails to pass the bill, or passes the same bill with amendments to which the House will not agree.

Once these triggers have been met, the Prime Minister may recommend to the Governor-General that a double dissolution of the Parliament take place. A federal election then follows for all members of the House of Representatives and all senators.

More than one bill may act as a trigger for a double dissolution.

A double dissolution cannot take place within 6 months of the end of a 3-year term of the House of Representatives.

Joint sitting of Parliament

After a double dissolution election, the bill or bills which triggered the double dissolution may be presented to both houses of Parliament again. If a deadlock occurs once more, the Governor-General may order a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. At a joint sitting, all members of parliament from both houses meet together to vote on the bill or bills.

A joint sitting has only occurred once in the Australian Parliament. In 1974 the government, led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, had a majority of 9 votes in the House of Representatives but did not have a majority in the Senate. The Senate twice refused to pass 6 bills and these became double dissolution triggers. The Prime Minister requested the Governor-General to use section 57 to dissolve both houses of Parliament and call an election.

The government won the election but with a reduced majority in the House of Representatives; it still did not have a majority in the Senate. The disputed bills were again introduced into and passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate again rejected the bills. As a result, the Governor-General convened a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament to vote together on the bills. The Whitlam government had a majority of all the combined votes. The government members voted together to ensure that all 6 bills were passed by an absolute majority of all members of parliament.

History

There have been 7 double dissolutions of the Australian Parliament: in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 2016. In 1914, 1975 and 1983, the government lost the election that resulted from the double dissolution. The most famous of these double dissolutions occurred in 1975. The Senate refused to pass the supply—Budget bills—of the government, led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. This caused a deadlock which could be used as a double dissolution trigger. The Prime Minister did not want a double dissolution election; however, Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the government and an election was called by caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

The Senate chamber

The red Senate chamber. There are people sitting in seats which are arranged in a U-shape around a large central table.

David Foote/DPS AUSPIC

Description

This image is of a large room with red furnishings. The seats are arranged around a large central table. There are 3 large chairs at the open end of the U-shaped seats that are elevated above the other chairs. There are people sitting in the seats and papers on the desks.

Mr Whitlam speaks on the steps of Old Parliament House, Canberra, after his dismissal.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam surrounded by the press. He is talking into microphones and is surrounded by people.

Australian Information Service, National Library of Australia, an 24355082

Description

This black and white photo shows former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam talking into a number of microphones. People crowd around him. He is standing on the steps of (Old) Parliament House. 

Joint sitting of the Australian Parliament.

Black and white photo of the House of Representatives chamber with horse shoe shaped seating and all seats full.

DPS Auspic

Description

This black and white photo is of a large room with tall ceilings. The seats are arranged in a horse-shoe shape around a large central table. There is a large chair at the open end of the U-shaped seats that is elevated above the other chairs. There are people sitting in the seats and papers on the desks. People are sitting and standing in the raised balconies around the sides of the room.